Comcast pounces on PowerCloud to accelerate WiFi time to market


Comcast has, in PowerCloud Systems, acquired a set of technologies that will make it easier to run what is rapidly becoming the largest cluster of WiFi access points in the world.

There are various cloud-based software services out there for managing WiFi, some of them from large players like Ericsson, but Comcast has always tended to have the confidence to go its own way, and when the time is right, buy in any technology that it might deem strategic.

The price paid has not been made public, but some reports are describing it as the simplest way to acquire a bunch of talented cloud developers who understand the state of WiFi today. However, it is almost certain that Comcast has been testing these tools for some time, and now seems them as highly valuable, with the ability to support business models it has not yet launched, giving it a far faster route to market for its entire WiFi cloud.

Internally Comcast will have built much of the function that PowerCloud gives it, but almost certainly not in quite such a polished form or in its entiety.

The deal gives Comcast systems for WiFi roaming, including integration of Hotspot 2.0 authentication; gives a user console for managing consumer access to WiFi; offers guest SSID set-up, and no doubt Homespot SSID set-up, as well as a retail analytics system for retailers to monetize WiFi by extracting customer data, without customers ever having to log on.

This type of “lure” for retailers, who often feel they must offer WiFi, but which need to be sure they can extract payback, has been highly popular of late, with companies such as Purple WiFi, AirTight Networks, Cloud4Wi and Socifi all Euclid Analytics, Digital Air Networks, all recently operating in and around this space. A company like Comcast was always going to want to control its own “lure” to bring retailers into the fold. Over the last few quarters Comcast has accelerated its revenues from “enterprise” clients, and is installing DOCSIS modems and WiFi for many of them.

Consumers apparently know PowerCloud mostly for its Skydog WiFi Router, which comes with a free app that gives consumers control over who can use their home WiFi networks. Comcast is surely not going to allow consumers more than one opportunity to opt into a second SSID, given that it has so much to gain from offering every Home WiFi as a Homespot, so this product is unlikely to be supported.

Instead Skydog will be adapted to enable Comcast broadband subscribers to manage all their IP devices, tracking which ones are using the most resources, and identifying clandestine connections to the home network by intruders. Of course it will also be used as “proof” of a secret that is driving cable homespots, which is that when you have a second SSID on your WiFi, not only is it invisible to you, the usage on the DOCSIS channels that support it can be boosted, so that the other SSID uses none of a consumers data allocation or bandwidth.

This is something that telcos just can’t emulate. So when AT&T offers FON on a 50Mbps line, the consumer will notice that it drops off to perhaps 40Mbps when a second SSID is being used. In a Comcast 100Mbps connection, the second SSID uses 0% of that allocation, even when multiple users are connected. By buying in an app that demonstrates this, Comcast will ease the mind of many of its customers.

Comcast will also get the Skydog Unified Service Platform and this provides it with a tried and tested tool for centrally keeping an eye on how the WiFi network performs, including its dedicated hotspot installations. Comcast at last count said that it has access to 250,000 hotspots throughout the US, but it only manages around 150,000 of these itself, sharing the rest from other cable operators in the CableWiFi Alliance. But it also now has over 8m homespots that it can manage from the same platform.

Another product Comcast gets from PowerCloud is what it calls a Transparent Virtual Network Overlay which allows for secure Wi-Fi services across independent networks. This creates virtual service zones across end-customer network infrastructures to securely provide multiple wireless services from the same routers or access points. Could it perhaps use this to overlay video services for individual cellular partners on its own hotspots network?

Right now we know that Comcast hasn’t got WiFi partnerships with any of the major US cellcos, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t trying to induce discussions between it and AT&T and Verizon. In the end we expect the demand for WiFi coverage will attract even the most hostile enemies to at least discover what savings can be achieved by buying into Comcast WiFi for offload.

But one of the biggest jewels in the crown of PowerCloud is the way it can integrate into existing Radius authentication services driven by EAP SIM, the cellular operator’s preferred way to authenticate. This will allow Comcast to let non-customers authenticate through their own operator, and yet use the Comcast hotspots seamlessly. That also makes it really easy to work with existing aggregators, offering them an authentication API to write to.

Many WiFi aggregators, such as iPass, work hand in hand with enterprises, and need to offer services such as firewall, traffic shaping and VLAN support, and PowerCloud adds all of this to the Comcast suite.

Comcast buying PowerCloud now implies that it is close to bringing a whole new gaggle of WiFi offerings into the public gaze in the very near future, after talking about them for a year or so.

PowerCloud was originally spun off from the Xerox PARC labs in 2008 and was privately funded absorbing about $6m.